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Americans back government hacking as long as cops tell tech companies how they did it

The public sides with Apple when it comes to disclosing vulnerabilities that let cops hack into phones.


Eric Geller


Posted on Apr 5, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 11:56 pm CDT

Most Americans want to let government agents break into criminal and terrorism suspects’ mobile devices to pursue their investigations, but they also want authorities to inform the devices’ manufacturers about the bugs that let them do so.

These findings, from a Morning Consult poll released Tuesday, come as the FBI closely guards a secret technique that allowed it to break into the iPhone 5c of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The Justice Department’s surprise announcement on March 22 that a third party had presented it with this tool ended a month-long legal battle with Apple, but the debate over government access to encrypted products remains heated.

Nearly six in 10 Americans (57 percent) told Morning Consult that the government should be “allowed to ‘hack’ into suspect terrorists’ phones or computers without informing the owner that had their data compromised.”

The split between those who supported this approach and those who opposed it was most pronounced among Americans aged 18-29, with the widest margin of support coming from people over the age of 65.

Supporters of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump were the most enthusiastic about the approach, with 71 percent approving of it, while supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders were the most divided, with only 46 percent backing it and nearly as many opposing it.

These findings generally align with the competing philosophies of the two novel political candidates. Trump has argued that the government should use any means necessary to stop terrorists, including violating long-cherished civil liberties, while Sanders has warned in general about the government secretly acting against the interests of average Americans.

Americans overwhelmingly agree with Apple that the government should disclose the hardware or software bug that allowed it to access the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone. Nearly seven in 10 respondents (69 percent) said that authorities should tell tech companies about flaws in their products, allowing engineers to fix the vulnerabilities.

The tech industry has expressed concern that, by keeping its exploits secret, the government is preventing it from patching holes that hackers are eager to discover.

The federal government has a process for weighing competing economic and national-security concerns over disclosing or withholding vulnerabilities, but technologists and civil-liberties advocates argue that it is stacked against disclosure.

Security concerns also color the fierce debate over whether the government should require tech companies to build holes in their encryption so that they can comply with warrants for user data. Tech firms like Apple and Google have been moving toward unbreakable encryption as they attempt to stay ahead of hackers, but law-enforcement officials warn that criminals are “going dark” on these encrypted platforms and want guaranteed access to the data.

Security experts nearly universally oppose these demands for what they call “backdoors” in encryption, pointing out that a hole designed for law-enforcement can be discovered and exploited by criminals. They also note that there are many foreign encrypted platforms that terrorists would inevitably turn to if a U.S. mandate hobbled the encryption of American products and services.

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*First Published: Apr 5, 2016, 1:59 pm CDT